BOSTON — Nine games into a season in which every game matters, there are a couple things you can say about the Rays besides that they're going to miss the Orioles.
Their offense has flashed glimpses of being dynamic. Their defense has been tremendous. Their starting pitching has, for the most part, been pretty good.
And their bullpen has been a bigger headache than expected.
Whether you want to go by the stats (a 7.01 ERA that is worse than all but one other team), by the results (two losses, three blown saves) or just what you've seen before throwing your socks at the TV, the reality is that for the Rays to make the kind of playoff run they expect, the bullpen is going to have to be better.
"How important is it? It's everything," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "We can hit all we want and we can play defense all we want and we can have starting pitching all we want, but we won't win without a solid bullpen."
In theory, with so much invested and so much at stake this season, the Rays would act quickly to address the mess. In reality, it's going to take patience — and some more Pepto-Bismol.
Here's a look at the situation.
Executive vice president Andrew Friedman's Blackberry bill could be Exhibit A as evidence of his attempts to find outside help following the late spring acknowledgement that key setup man J.P. Howell would be sidelined at least into May due to injury.
But the combination of a limited number of legitimate upgrades, high demand and exorbitant price tags make it unlikely the Rays are going to find much, if anything.
What they're hoping is the current bullpen improves and, in time, they get help from some internal options. Big-league veteran right-hander Joaquin Benoit is a strong possibility in the nearer term if he continues to pitch well at Triple-A Durham, and prospects Jake McGee and Alex Torres, both now starting at Double-A Montgomery, become candidates later in the season.
Benoit, who missed all of last season following shoulder surgery, has pitched well thus far (nine strikeouts and a 0.00 ERA in 41/3 innings over three games). But the Rays want to be sure he has the arm strength to handle regular work. With his experience, a fastball in the upper 90s and a bit of a gimmick pitch (a fosh that's a cross between a splitter and a changeup) that is effective against left-handers could make him a significant addition.
There's also some thought that Andy Sonnanstine, as he gets more comfortable in the role, could develop into an effective reliever.
Inside the numbers
The way the Rays look at it, the overall bullpen really hasn't been that bad, that the inflated numbers can be traced to two things — some bad work in meaningless mop-up situations and the unexpected poor performance by Randy Choate, the lone lefty.
Take Choate (0-1, 27.00 ERA) and Mike Ekstrom (0-1, 19.29) out of the mix, and the rest of the group is a respectable 2-0 with a 3.43 ERA. The Rays are somewhat encouraged by the gradual improvement of Grant Balfour after a rough spring, the consistency of Lance Cormier and the reliability of Dan Wheeler. Plus, after maybe too light of a spring, they feel closer Rafael Soriano is now hitting his top form.
That leaves Choate as the primary concern. He has faced 16 batters and allowed nine hits, including game-losing (Jorge Posada) and game-tying (Luke Scott) home runs.
"To this point, I would just say we have to get Randy back in the groove more than anything," manager Joe Maddon said.
The Rays are asking more of Choate, who had a solid four months in 2009 but is 34 and has never spent a full season in the majors. He's pitching in longer stints (29 of last year's 61 appearances were one batter), facing tough right-handers and is being used in critical situations.
Their hope is that fixing the problem is just a matter of a slight mechanical adjustment to get his sinker to start sinking again. If not, they don't have many other options. Cormier and Sonnanstine can also be used against some lefties.
A team effort
There are other ways to make the bullpen better.
The Rays are constructed with a plan to minimize the number of high-leverage innings the bullpen has to work by having young and strong starters who work deep and an offense that scores enough to put games out of reach.
In five of their six wins, the Rays got seven or more innings from their starter (Matt Garza and David Price twice, Jeff Niemann once). But James Shields has worked only six and 51/3 in his two starts and Wade Davis six in his lone start. Plus, the pen was taxed when Niemann was knocked out of his first start in the second inning.
And before scoring 17 runs in the past two games, the offense was scoring just 4.1 runs a game, which is not enough. (Now it's 5.1, which is about what the Rays need).
The Rays pride themselves on not overreacting, and nine games is, obviously, a small sample. (If this were the Bucs, for instance, we'd be midway through the fourth quarter of the opener.)
But they are well aware of the situation.
"I think going into any season there's always a bit of discomfort with a bullpen," Friedman said. "Part of it has to do with yearly fluctuations and also speaks to this division and the need for guys with swing-and-miss stuff. That said, we have a lot of guys who have experienced a lot of success in the AL East, which gives us great comfort.
"But like anything else, I think you're always focused on ways to further improve the team."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.